Three essays herewith: HOW THE GREEKS INVENTED SPORTS followed by
THE ONE TRUE FAITH and JEWS, CHRISTIANS, AND GOD'S WORD
HOW THE GREEKS INVENTED SPORTS
Note: This article appeared in slightly different form on the OpEd page of
The New York Times for August 9, 2004 under the byline of Thomas Cahill.
The ancient Greeks were the world's first sports fans. They loved games of
all kinds, which they called agones. That's how we came by our words
"agony" and "antagonist"--which should give us a good idea of how the
Greeks viewed their games: as agonies in which antagonist is pitted against
antagonist till one comes out on top. A better English term for what they
had in mind might be "contest" or "struggle" or even "power-performance."
Ancient Greece was a society of alpha males, who took their fun seriously.
Whether they were at war with one another (which they often were and which
they got a huge bang out of) or enjoying more peaceful pursuits, they
insisted that certain rules be followed and that there always be, smack in
the middle of all the fun, an agon. In war, there was nothing that thrilled
them more than a fight to the death, one army's champion pitted against
another. In peacetime, they couldn't just take in a poetry reading, listen
to a concert, or watch a play. They had to enliven the proceedings with a
poetry contest, a music contest, a drama contest. There always had to be a
declared winner--on whom the laurels could be heaped--and at least one
miserable loser. Even their parties, which easily developed into orgies,
included contests over which participant could deliver the most eloquent
toast or tell the funniest joke or go the most rounds on the couch with the
flute girl. Needless to say, it was the flute girl who lost.
If by sports we only mean a few guys kicking a ball around, the Greeks were
not the inventors. Soccer in its simplest form has been with us ever since
the invention of animal husbandry, soon after which some playful young
shepherd kicked an inflated sheep's bladder or a decapitated sheep's head in
the direction of another shepherd, who was inspired to kick it back.
Certain bloodthirsty Celtic and Mesoamerican tribes--the Irish and the
Aztecs, in particular--preferred human heads rather than sheep parts for
such momentary diversions, which soon developed into rudimentary team
sports. But if by sports we mean a series of organized contests of physical
prowess, conducted according to acknowledged rules in the presence of
enthusiastic crowds and scheduled well in advance to encourage participation
by all the best athletes available--for the sheer glory and fame of winning--we are talking about a purely Greek invention.
The Greeks got a bang out of everything they did, but nothing raised their
spirits more than winning (or even just watching) an agon.
There is no greater glory for a living man
are the words of the Phaeacian prince Laodamas in Homer's Odyssey, as he
invites the great hero Odysseus to join in the games the Phaeacians have
arranged in his honor. "Let's see if you're really as good as your
reputation" is what the expectant Laodamas is thinking, but hoping to be
thrilled out of his mind by Odysseus's performance. (He is--when Odysseus
rises and effortlessly wings across the field a discus that lesser men
cannot lift.) The ancient Greeks knew a lot about the natural highs that
strenuous physical exercise can produce and the elevation of mood that
spectators can experience just by watching empathetically a first-rate
athlete perform at his best.
Than all that he can win by his own feet and hands.
So come, compete, and from your heart cast care away!
The Greek word for "best" is aristos (from which we derive "aristocrat"). It was the word the free-born adult male applied to himself and his friends.
Everyone else--females, boys who had not reached their majority, slaves,
resident aliens, barbarians--belonged to the lesser orders of existence,
and most of them could be violated--that is, scourged, wounded, murdered,
or raped--any time an aristos was so inclined. Though the wedded wife of a
male citizen was off-limits in this regard, his underage son was fair game
in a peculiarly Greek courtship ritual in which sexual favors were yielded
to older lovers who had supplied the requisite number of expensive gifts. The sexual favors were granted according to highly specific rules that
cannot be spelled out in a family newspaper; enough to remark that pederast
is also a Greek word. Athletes who performed at the Olympics and other
Greek games usually belonged to the category of "youth," the time between
childhood and adulthood, between peach-fuzz pubescence and the appearance of
a full beard, the mark of full citizenship. These youths, who always
competed nude, attracted spectators of many kinds, but especially older men
competing to become their lovers or, at the least, intending to feast on
Married women, however, were not permitted to enjoy this feast but were
kept at home, where they had to make do with the occasional matrimonial
visits of their aging husbands, normally a decade or two older than the
wives and whose profounder sexual interests tended to lie elsewhere. Though
matrons were banned, girls were invited to ogle and fantasize about future
husbands. They were also allowed to compete with one another in a single
footrace, clothed in a short-skirted chiton that exposed plenty of leg but
only one breast. This was a world that might have welcomed Janet Jackson
but would have given John Ashcroft a migraine.
If sex--eros, as the Greeks called it--was always central to these games,
so was death. The Greeks knew perfectly well that the games were a sort of
ritualized, theatrical version of death on the battlefield, an imitation of
their favorite sport: war. The games taught and reinforced favorite Greek
themes of honor and glory, of winning over others, of triumphing in combat. But they also underscored a different message altogether: you can't win all
the time, and oneday you will lose. The poet Archilochus, a sensational
athlete of the seventh century B.C. but also a realist, gave himself this
O heart, my heart, no public leaping when you win;
The last sentence is quietly ominous. The tides through which we move--the highs and the lows, the peaks and the troughs--tell us repeatedly that
nothing lasts and that all life ends in death. Let us temper our excitement
and agitation, whether for the ecstasy of battle or the ecstasy of sex,
whether over great achievement or great loss, and admit to ourselves that
all things have their moment and are gone. In such high-minded resignation
lies the aristocratic origins of sportsmanship.
no solitude nor weeping when you fail to prove.
Rejoice at simple things; and be but vexed by sin
and evil slightly. Know the tides through which we move.
The ancient Greeks were unlike us in so many ways, but in nothing is their
separation from us more complete than in their constant reiteration that
Fate rules all and there is nothing any of us can do about it. The Greeks
gave us so many of our words and concepts that, without them, our
dictionaries would shrink to near-pamphlet size. (The comical father of "My
Big Fat Greek Wedding" is really not far wrong.) But it took the injection
of the Judeo-Christian tradition of hope into the great Greco-Roman river in
order to redirect the worldview of the West and overcome the gloomy
fatedness that casts shadows over virtually every utterance left to us from
the classical world.
Once the Roman Empire had overwhelmed the Greeks in the second century
B.C., the Romans had to be invited to the games. The Emperor Nero,
history's most famous spoiled brat, showed himself a very bad sport by
insisting against all custom that the Olympics be rescheduled so he could
attend and then demanding first prize for every event he entered. The lower
orders of Greco-Roman society were never invited to participate, nor were
the unthinkable barbarians who lived their brutish lives beyond the borders
of the Empire. But the Olympics and similar Panhellenic games nevertheless
always had a heady internationalism about them, for they welcomed
representatives from all over the known world--so long as they could speak
Once the Christian church came to influence the Roman political
establishment, however, Greek paganism--the prayers to the gods, the
fierceness of the games, the nudity, the sexual shamelessness--was trounced
and disappeared underground by the sixth century A.D. But as with most
human artifices, its spirit never died out completely. It was still there
to be resurrected in the Renaissance and exploited once more in the
Enlightenment. It was the outer wave of the Enlightenment that brought the
Olympics back to Greek shores when the International Olympic Committee was
formed and the modern Olympic games were established at Athens in 1896,
thanks to the vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a stylish, relentless,
enlightened Frenchman with a profound appreciation for what the ancient
Greeks had accomplished, as well as very Judeo-Christian hopes for world
peace and international cooperation.
Being a baron and a ninteenth-century male, de Coubertin failed to perceive
the perniciousness of European classism and universal sexism, so invitations
to participate in the first modern Olympics were issued to "gentlemen" only.
But a young Greek shepherd named Spyridon Louis, who was allowed on the
Greek team at the last minute, won the first modern marathon. Afterwards,
he turned down all honors--gold, cash, jewelry, free meals, free haircuts,
free coffee for life--that the ecstatic Greeks pressed on him, even an
offer of marriage from an aristocratic beauty, who in offering herself prior
to the race to the winner-to-be had presumed that only a member of her own
class could win! The modest winner accepted the olive wreath that was his
due, returned to his little village of Maroussi, and married his sweetheart.
This startling crack in the class barrier presaged the IOC's tearing down
of other culturally determined barriers, including gender. Nor has Spyridon
Louis been forgotten: the new Olympic stadium at Athens is named for him,
and "to do a Louis"--to win unexpectedly--has become part of the Greek
We in the West are--and have been for many centuries--Greco-Roman
Judeo-Christians, the inheritors of a double tradition, a tradition that has
had incalculable effect on the whole world. We are in a position to pick
and choose from the abundant variety of our shared past. We hardly need to
imitate ancient Greek bellicosity, racism, classism, or sexism, or to laud
the supreme worth ancient Greece placed on domination. (Actually, there are
not a few among us who continue to admire just such things, though our
society as a whole no longer pays lip service to these values.) But we must
remain exceedingly grateful to the Greeks for introducing us to the peaceful
uses of competition and the thrilling experiences made possible by organized
athletics, not least of which is the sense of human solidarity that comes to
bind athletes from so many different places to one another and gives the
immense Olympic audience an abiding feeling for the interconnectedness of
the human family. Finally, there is the tremendous ecumenical value of
humanity's abandoning its daily preoccupations and spending a couple of
weeks riveted on a cooperative world of physical grace and human
perfectibility: all that one can win by his own--or her own--feet and
THE ONE TRUE FAITH
Note: This article appeared in slightly different form on the front page of The New York Times Week in Review
for February 3, 2003 under the byline of Thomas Cahill.
Once upon a time, there was a religion whose adherents thought it to be the only true one. Because their God wished everyone (or so they thought) to believe as they did, they felt justified in imposing their religion on others. Toward those who refused to bow to the "true" religion, these true believers took different tacks at different times. Sometimes, they hemmed in the infidels (as they were called) with civil disabilities, limiting their licence to practice their own religion, forcing them to listen to propaganda, and otherwise restricting their freedom; at other times, they became more aggressive, burning the holy books of those who believed differently, smashing their sacred statues, and even engaging in wholesale slaughter of infidels -- men, women, and children -- as if they were rats carrying plague.
The religion I am thinking of is not Islam but Christianity, whose dark history of crusades, inquisitions, and pogroms lies not as far in the past as we might prefer to think. What changed Christianity? How did Christians learn the virtue of tolerance? Centuries of bloody religious wars and persecutions finally convinced most Christians that there must be a better way to organize society, a way that did not involve quite so many burning bodies, human charnel houses, and corpse-strewn battlefields. The slow germination of this revolution in consciousness can be dated at least to the eighteenth century, toward the end of which a country finally emerged -- our own -- that officially refused to play the old game of whose religion was true, a country that took a generously agnostic view of religious truth: you may believe whatever you like, and so may I, and neither of us can impose belief on the other.
Is there an essentially different dynamic at work in the Islamic countries that keeps them from arriving at the civic virtue of tolerance? The forces of Enlightenment that exalted tolerance in the West were given their impetus by the European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which Christian was pitted against Christian -- wars over points of doctrine that must have looked exceedingly abstruse, even absurd to non-Christians, who could see only similarities between the warring systems. We may well wonder if this Enlightenment would have emerged with such vigor had the battles involved Christian against Jew -- or, more exotically, against Muslim or Buddhist or Zoroastrian. Protestants and Catholics had to learn to be tolerant of one another -- to be tolerant of different forms of Christianity -- before they could ever learn to tolerate those whose religious affiliations were non-Christian. In a similar way, the Muslim world is more likely to develop the virtue of tolerance as it surveys the hopelessly diverse ways in which different communities and peoples have responded to the core insights of Islam. What do Turks have in common with Taliban or Wahhabi Muslims with Sufis? Very little, it would seem at first glance. What, for that matter, do Sunni Muslims have in common with Shiites? If non-Muslims can see similarities, warring Muslim factions can often see only deadly differences.
The West should not allow itself too many congratulations on its vaunted tolerance. In Northern Ireland, little Catholic children are still unable to walk to school without hearing vile epithets hurled at them by foul-mouthed adults. In Great Britain, a Catholic may still not serve as prime minister or sit upon the storied throne of Edward the Confessor. The Vatican, for its part, first blessed tolerance as a civic virtue a scant thirty-nine years ago -- at the close of the Second Vatican Council. Prior to that time, the official Catholic position was little different from that of the mullahs of Kandahar: when we are in power, we will impose religion as we see fit.
This new Catholic blessing of tolerance -- which took the form of a declaration that religious liberty is the right of every human being -- was made possible chiefly because of the life and work of two uncommon human beings. The first was the courtly Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, who was able to reinterpret Catholic political theory so as to give theological primacy to freedom of conscience. Not incidentally, Courtney Murray was a 20th-century American, deeply in love with American political ideals.
The other was John XXIII, the pope who convoked the council with the express aim of bringing the teaching of the Catholic Church up to date. With his whole being John hated using religion to divide people from one another or to belittle the worldview of anyone. He was, in fact, the greatest pope who ever lived, beloved not only by Catholics and other Christians but by people of all kinds throughout the world. As he lay dying, his secretary read to him from the mountains of sympathetic letters then piling into the Vatican. In one of these his correspondent wrote, "Insofar as an atheist can pray, I'm praying for you." Hearing this, John, despite his pain, smiled with delight. For him, the common bond of humanity was all that was necessary for profound friendship and understanding -- and a little humor always helped.
Each of the great religions creates, almost from its inception, a colorful spectrum of voices that range all the way from pacifist to terrorist. But each religion, because of its metaphorical ambiguity and intellectual subtlety, holds within it marvelous potential for development and adaptation. This development will be full of zigzags and may sometimes seem as slow as the development of the universe, but it runs -- I would say, almost inevitably -- from exclusivist militancy to inclusive peace. The tolerant Islam that in the 15th and 16th centuries allowed the Jews of Spain, expelled by Catholic tyrants, to find homes in Arab lands has not disappeared from the face of the earth. The peace-loving Islam that in the 7th and 8th centuries protected the world's oldest portrait of Jesus -- in the Sinai monastery of Saint Catherine -- from destruction at the hands of raging Christian iconoclasts has not been erased. These humane Islamic responses are living seeds, a little buried perhaps but capable of a great flowering.
The bloodthirsty Judaism of the Book of Joshua in which God commands the Israelites to put all Canaanites, even children, to the sword, is hardly the Judaism of today, except perhaps at the extreme end of its spectrum -- in the followers of someone like Meir Kahane or the ultra-Orthodox fanatics who encouraged the assassination of the peacemaker Yitzak Rabin. But in the same period as Joshua, or soon thereafter, when Gideon builds an altar in the desert to replace the altar of Baal, the god of thunder and war, he calls the new altar, "Peace is the Name of God" -- that is, peace is God's essence, the virtue at the heart of reality. In a similar way, the Christianity of thirteenth-century Europe -- a time of bloody crusades and inquisitions against heretics, a time when Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed that complete subjection to him was "utterly necessary for the salvation of every living creature" -- is very different from the Christianity of Pope John XXIII, who wrote in his diary that "the whole world is my family." At the extreme end of the Christian spectrum there are still intolerant bigots like Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones and crazy militants who shoot up abortion clinics, but these types are now far from the mainstream. And even in the thirteenth century, Christianity was capable of bringing forth such an utterly pacifist figure as Francis of Assisi. Over the ages of its development, each religion learns gradually -- and with many steps backward and sideways but, finally, with more steps forward --that it must find a way to live side by side with its "heretical" offshoots and with other religions that do not share all its views and values. It can never have the whole world (as Boniface VIII imagined), except in love (as John XXIII intended).
Islam, seven centuries younger than Christianity, nearly three millennia younger than Judaism, needs a distinguished theoretical peacemaker like John Courtney Murray and a warm-hearted, iconic peacemaker like John XXIII. If such peacemakers should emerge, they will stand -- as did Courtney Murray and Pope John in their tradition -- on the shoulders of great theologians and saints
who came before them in the rich tradition of Islam. But to paraphrase the letter-writing atheist: insofar as a Christian can appreciate the providential workings of Allah in Islam, I am confident such peacemakers will arrive. My confidence is rooted neither in a baseless, smiley-faced optimism nor in a discredited historical determinism but in the belief that all the great religions hold in common, a belief that there is a force beyond human muddledness that holds up the universe, a force we usually call Providence -- the force that gives us hope for the future.
In fact, Islamic peacemakers are already at work. They are people like the Palestinian-American, Mubarak Awad, who may one day be seen as a Martin Luther King of Islamic non-violence, and the profoundly impressive Palestinian philosopher, Sari Nusseibeh, who speaks repeatedly of the fruitlessness of violence and points to the irreducibly Judaic roots of Islam. Such men exist not just among the Palestinians but in countries throughout the Islamic world. At present, they may appear to be lonely voices -- but no more lonely than Courtney Murray and Pope John once were. And they stand in their tradition on shoulders as broad as those of Gideon and Saint Francis. In the end, they shall succeed . . . inshallah.
JEWS, CHRISTIANS, AND GOD'S WORD:
A Common Heritage of Prayer and Action
Note: Thomas Cahill has given this address in slightly different form on several occasions to interfaith audiences,
most recently in March 2003 in Baltimore to The Institute For Christian & Jewish Studies.
I am engaged in writing a projected seven-volume series called The Hinges of History®, a recounting of the stories and people that have made the Western world the Western world -- that have made us the people we are by giving us our characteristic thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Three volumes have now been published. Volume I is an introductory volume to a new way of looking at our history. It is called How the Irish Saved Civilization. Volume II, The Gifts of the Jews, takes us back to the beginning of the West, for the Jews are the very font and origin of Western civilization. There would be no West without them. Volume III, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, concerns the teachings of Jesus and the early Christians. Volumes II and III are very closely related, since Christianity began as a form of Judaism, springing more or less directly out of the ancient religion of the Israelites. This evening I would like to address a theme that runs through Volumes II and III, the theme of Jewish prophecy. Since Jewish prophecy is certainly a literary tradition with its own characteristic literary conventions, it surely deserves consideration in civilized circumstances, such as this: a talk given by a writer in a house of worship and sponsored by an academic institution. But, I warn you beforehand, Jewish prophecy is primarily a moral tradition -- an unsettling and unconventional moral tradition that can be stark and offensive and seldom minds its manners. You and I will have to do the best we can with it.
Let me tell you first about a society of peace and prosperity that existed long ago. In this society, many people had much more than they needed. Real estate agents, bankers and lenders, and everyone involved in finance were all doing spectacularly well. The construction business was experiencing an unprecedented boom, because so many people were building new homes and adding to existing ones. Whereas once upon a time two or three rooms had been thought sufficient, even abundant, one could now hardly hold one's head up in society if one had not ten or twelve spacious rooms to show off and any number of baths (complete with saunas and jacuzzis). It seemed as if everyone now required a spectacular view, so that on every hill there sprawled the sort of arresting architecture that would have caught the eye of Architectural Digest (had it been around at the time). Elaborate wine cellars and even personal vineyards were in vogue, and lavish wine tastings were the very thing with which to impress your friends and neighbors. Of course, you hadn't a chance of impressing anyone unless your home was generously bedecked with precious ornaments and your wardrobes filled with elegant finery. All the markets were buzzing; and the communications, entertainment, and travel industries had never enjoyed such escalating profits. People were into creative leisure -- how best to fill the empty hours with interesting diversions and sometimes with naughty but harmless adventures. People became bored quickly, especially the restless young, and were always on the lookout for Something New, some fascinating innovation, however trifling, that could provide original, if fleeting, entertainment.
The men and women of this society -- at least the ones who luxuriated properly -- would have been shocked to hear that there were some in their midst who enjoyed none of these pleasures, people who could not afford such things, people who could not even be seen (at least if one were fortunate enough to be looking down from one of the more desirable hilltops), people hidden away here and there, living lives of quiet desperation. The people on the hilltops would have been greatly offended had anyone dared suggest that there was something missing from their lives and that the desperate lives of the dispossessed were their responsibility -- that, in fact, it was their uncaring wealth that was responsible for the plight of the invisible poor.
The scene I have set is not in the Hamptons or Marin County or Greenspring Valley, even though it could serve as a description of not a few portions of our planet during many phases of human history. The scene I have described belongs to Samaria in the Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century B.C. Every detail of my description is taken from a document of that time, written by an eyewitness, the prophet Amos. Amos, a shepherd from Judea, was so shocked by what he saw -- by conspicuous consumption on such a grand scale -- that he realized that this was just a novel form of social injustice. Facing the leisurely ladies of Samaria, he found he could not refrain from shouting at them, thus:
Listen to this, you cows of Bashan
The ladies of Samaria were not accustomed to being addressed in this manner, nor were their sleek husbands, of whom Amos, speaking in God's name, offered the following description:
living on the hill of Samaria [the best real estate],
exploiting the weak and ill-treating the poor,
saying to your husbands, "Bring us something to drink!"
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
Look, the days will soon be on you
when he will use hooks to drag you away
and fish-hooks for the very last of you;
through the breaches in the wall you will leave,
each one straight ahead,
and be herded away towards [Mount] Hermon,
declares the LORD.
They hate the man who teaches justice at the city gate
Prophets are, by their nature, inconvenient party-poopers (and you don't know how lucky you are to be addressed by a mere writer rather than by a Hebrew prophet). It is a mistaken notion that prophets can see the future. Rather, they tell us what is true right now. Amos is the first in a long line of Hebrew prophets who tell the people the truth, however unwelcome, about how they actually stand with God.
and detest anyone who declares the truth.
For trampling on the poor man
and for extorting taxes on his wheat:
although you have built houses of dressed stone,
you will never live in them;
although you have planted pleasant vineyards,
you will not drink wine from them:
for I know how many your crimes are
and how outrageous your sins,
you oppressors of the upright, who hold people to ransom
and thrust the poor aside at the gates.
A decade or so after Amos's time, another prophet, Micah, finds himself confronted -- in the southern kingdom of Judah -- with an appalling practice, the Canaanite tradition of sacrificing children to the god Moloch, a tradition that had begun to attract even some Israelites, who burned babies alive in a place south of Jerusalem, the horrible Valley of Hinnon, known in the Gospels as Gehenna (or hell). Micah presents us with an idle devotee asking himself how best to worship God: should he sacrifice his own child so that his petition may be answered to his satisfaction?
Wherewith shall I come before the Lord
The prophet, sickened by such musings, tells the devotee in no uncertain terms that God
and bow myself before the high God?
shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves of a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
or with ten thousand rivers of oil?
shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
has already shown you what is right:
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
and walk humbly with your God?
How does one "walk with God"? This is a phrase used repeatedly through the course of the Hebrew Bible. Long before Micah, the Book of Genesis speaks of dim ancestral figures, such as Enoch and Noah, as those who "walked with God." Of course, the phrase is another way of saying that such figures kept God's law and did his will. But "walk[ing] with God" suggests also that God's law -- his will -- is best understood and kept by those who share an intimacy with God.
"To walk with God" is also to pray. One cannot keep God's word without listening to God. One cannot lead a moral life if one does not set aside time to listen to God's voice -- to be still and let God speak in one's life. The ancient Jews, who were very unlike the ancient Greeks and had no patience for Greek categories and distinctions, had an amazingly unitive view of life. They did not need to distinguish prayer and moral action as if these were separate movements: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk with God -- that is, to be moral and to be prayerful -- were all simply aspects of the same process.
Let me give you a third example of prophecy, this one taken from early Christian tradition: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be taxed," reports Luke in Chapter 2 of his Gospel, describing a time 2000 years ago that became the beginning of our era. This Caesar Augustus took his name from Julius Caesar, his adoptive father, who had ruled Rome but had lost his position -- not by being voted out of office but by assassination (ancient Rome being a tad more dangerous than contemporary Washington).
How did Caesar Augustus become emperor? He had a highly influential family to whom many owed major political debts; he had skillful advisors and excellent connections. He believed his accession would be a vindication of the man who had preceded him in office and whose name he bore. At first, his lackluster personal qualities limited his advancement, but a tawdry sexual scandal involving the leader of the rival party -- family man Mark Antony's dalliance with Cleopatra, who was fond of thongs -- gave Augustus an unparalleled opportunity, which he was able to exploit to the full. Though not the brightest flame in the chandelier of the Julian family, Augustus appeared affable and was more than willing to use any method, however devious, and any wile, however amoral, to obtain his objective, including the intimidation of public officials by threatening mobs assembled for that purpose. In the end, the Senate forsook its responsibilities to the Republic and capitulated in crowning Augustus as emperor. (The Roman Senate, unlike the American one, was not so much a legislative body as a judicial one, comparable in certain ways to our Supreme Court.) Publicists of all sorts, various clergy, even writers as well regarded as Virgil jumped on the bandwagon to declare that the new emperor had been chosen by heaven.
Why was the whole world being taxed? Despite the decree, it wasn't really the whole world -- just the poor and the lower rungs of the middle class, for in ancient Rome the rich only pretended to pay taxes, while everyone else bore the brunt of supporting the state. Caesar Augustus's taxation method was even more cumbersome than, say, Florida's voting procedures -- at least for those who had to pay: "And all went to be taxed, every one to his own city" -- including Joseph, who had to travel all the way from Nazareth, where he lived, to Bethlehem, because that was his birthplace, "to be taxed," as Luke tells us, "with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child." Of course, if you lived in one of the better neighborhoods, you didn't need to be saddled with such inconveniences. But if you were poor or a member of a minority group, a hundred mile journey by donkey when you were nine months pregnant was just the way things were. As Augustus might have said to Mary, "I wish I could wave a wand" -- which is what one presidential candidate said a few years ago to a woman who could not afford the operation that would have saved her son's life. "I wish I could wave a wand." But, of course, Caesar Augustus would never think of upsetting the status quo or his personal network of powerful vested interests.
Were Mary and Joseph bitter? Did they wonder if God had abandoned them to be permanently oppressed by the rich and powerful? No, their lives were not
confined to the politics or circumstances of the moment, however appalling. They
had faith that, as Mary put it, God would one day "rout the proud of heart, pull the princes from their thrones and exalt the humble, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty." They were so sure this would happen that they lived as if it had already come to pass. And, besides, they had a brand new baby to look forward to, which made them so happy they could almost hear angels singing, "Peace on earth, good will to all."
In her song of celebration about the baby she was about to give birth to, Mary spoke eloquently in the Jewish prophetic tradition -- by seeing beyond the surface realities to the deep truth of human affairs. "My soul extols the Lord," she exclaimed,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
Of course, God had yet to do any of these things, but in Mary's view they were as good as done -- because God is just and keeps his word.
because he has acknowledged his servant's humiliation.
Look: from now on will all ages call me happy
because the Almighty One (holy his Name) has done great things for me!
His mercy falls on every generation that fears him.
With his powerful arm he has routed the proud of heart.
He has pulled the princes from their thrones and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to help his servant Israel, remembering his mercy,
in accordance with the promise he made to our fathers --
to Abraham and his seed forever.
Mary's son, Jesus, will grow up to speak in the same prophetic tradition as his mother. Each of the prophets is an individual, of course, Amos the most outraged, Hosea the saddest and most affectionate, Isaiah the most literary and gorgeously metaphorical, Micah the most appalled, Mary the most muscular and triumphant, Jesus the most gentle. Jesus almost never rants and seldom criticizes -- and in this he is the most positive of the prophets. "Happy the poor in spirit," says Jesus,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Well, with one or two exceptions, this doesn't seems a particularly happy lot. What's happy about the poor ("in spirit" or otherwise), the afflicted, and the persecuted? Empty stomachs that hunger and dry throats that thirst don't sound so happy; peacemakers usually get their comeuppance; and is anyone more persecuted than "the pure in heart"? "Happy the unhappy" we might say in summary. But these are the Beatitudes and, in Matthew's Gospel, where we find them, they represent Jesus's basic program. But like his mother (and like the whole prophetic tradition), Jesus sees that, in some sense, the future is already here -- present at least in seed -- and that the rewards of the just lie outside ordinary time. Notice also that while some of the "happy" ones are clearly put upon -- the afflicted, the persecuted -- others -- the poor in spirit, the champions of justice for the downtrodden, the merciful, the peacemakers -- have chosen to be the people they are. This division points to Jesus's two audiences: the powerless, who need to be reminded that God loves them and will see to their ultimate triumph, and the powerful, who need to be encouraged to abandon their own comfort for the sake of others. The main purpose of the Gospel (or Good News) of Jesus is the same purpose as that of the entire prophetic tradition: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Happy the afflicted, for they will be comforted.
Happy the undemanding, for they will inherit the earth.
Happy the hungerers and thirsters for justice, for they will be filled.
Happy the merciful, for they will be given mercy.
Happy the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Happy the peacemakers, for they will be called God's children.
Happy the persecuted for justice's sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is precisely the entitlement of the powerful -- of the Caesars and their allies -- and the disenfranchisement of the powerless that make life so unlivable. And whether this enshrined and permanent injustice, taken for granted by all, issues in war, torture, and all the grand oppressions of history or just in the petty tortures that we visit on one another, spirit is crushed and ordinary life is made a torment.
But for Mary and Jesus -- as for the whole prophetic tradition -- justice and mercy can be accomplished only by those who "walk with God," who listen to God's word, who pray. Mary's outburst, her "Magnificat," is a form of prayer -- a prayer of adoration, a celebration of God's greatness, a greatness hidden from those who put themselves first and, therefore, cannot pray, because their own outsized egos prevent them from "walk[ing] in God's presence." We are physical beings. If we are tremendously happy, we must leap and shout -- and that is what Mary is doing, just as David had done when he danced nearly naked before the ark and sang aloud in his ecstasy. But despite such examples of spontaneous praise -- which are often the best way we have of conversing with God -- what is more important is not that we speak but that God speaks. Mary's and David's songs of praise are responses to God's word and to God's mighty acts. The heart of prayerfulness is not our words to God but God's word to us.
"When you pray," Jesus advises his disciples, "don't babble like the gentiles, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard. . . . Your Father-in-Heaven already knows what you need. So set your hearts on the Reign of God and on his Justice, and everything else will be given to you as well." This is just what Mary has done in her prayer. God's Justice on behalf of the poor and the marginalized -- not her own needs -- are the center of her concern, what she has "set [her] heart on." She knows that everything else will be given to her as well -- and that she need not go on about it.
If Amos, Micah, Mary, and Jesus were to return to us today, they would have the same thing to say to educated, prosperous Americans that they had to say to our counterparts so many centuries ago. They would look out across our world and notice that one sixth of the world's people face actual starvation, subsisting precariously on less than a dollar a day, that one-half of the world's people exist on less than two dollars a day, which means that half of all the world's children go to bed hungry every night. This is completely unnecessary, because there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. The only thing lacking is our will to distribute it justly. I think God's favorite Washington lobby is probably Bread for the World, which lobbies for the just distribution of food in this country and throughout the world.
Amos, Micah, Mary, and Jesus would look out across our country and notice that a black teenager is six times more likely to be sentenced to prison for a non-violent crime than is his white counterpart. If the crime involved violence, he is nine times more likely to be sentenced to prison. If the crime involved drugs, a black youth is 48 times more likely to be sentenced to prison than is a white youth convicted of the same offense. Though white teenagers make up 79 percent of the population of those under 18, they make up only 25 percent of teenagers admitted to adult prisons, whereas black teenagers, who represent only 15 percent of the under-18 population, make up 58 percent of all teenagers admitted to adult prisons -- which are our principal training grounds for hardened criminals.
Given such statistics, is it any wonder that our schools are failing? My daughter, of whom I am inordinately proud, has dedicated herself to teaching literature to minority students in a difficult urban high school; and she said recently that her greatest enemy is the despair of her students. They know instinctively the statistics I have just quoted: they must live with them every day -- and they know how little chance they have of ever succeeding against such odds. We are still sacrificing our children to evil gods.
And the increasing division of our population into a spectrum that runs from ghettos to gated communities insures that the poor are growing invisible to the complacent majority. As Jack Newfield wrote recently, "We don't see all the people being told there are no applications for foodstamps available at that location; all the people postponing medical treatment for their children because they don't have health insurance; all the people trying to find a job with their phone service shut off because they couldn't pay the bill; or all the deliverymen for drugstores and supermarkets paid only $3 an hour, which is illegal." Elvis once sang, "Do we simply turn and look away?" Now, we don't have to look away because these scenes are kept from us. Gary Hart said just last month: "How do you make the principles of equality and justice and fairness work in a time when everyone's well off." Gary! you stupid, smug suburbanite. Newfield adds that "in one way we are even worse off than we were" in times past, for "we have no Jacob Riis now humanizing poverty, making the satisfied see it and smell it. We have no American Dickens or Orwell, no James Agee and Walker Evans, no Michael Harrington, no John Steinbeck, no Edward R. Murrow." We need a Hebrew prophet to singe our eyebrows with his words.
I mentioned earlier the unequal taxation imposed by Caesar. Why did he do it? Well, he couldn't very well tax his friends and cronies, the very people who helped him obtain his office, now could he? But he did need income to run the state and defend it against its enemies. Obviously, the non-rich would have to take up the burden. It is horrifying to have to remark that the United States of America is now embarking on the same course of unequal -- and unjust -- taxation that was once the modus operandi of the Roman Empire. Between 1995 and 1999 the number of Americans with million dollar incomes more than doubled while their taxes fell by 11 percent. For all other Americans, the portion of their income taken by taxes rose for the same period.
Payroll taxes, which fall most heavily on low- and middle-income families, were increased in the 1980s in order to generate a surplus that would make it easier for the federal government to pay benefits to an aging population. But now, thanks to the disappearance of the budget surplus, the excess revenue collected by the payroll tax is being used up to cover deficits elsewhere in the federal budget. Why are we suffering such deficits? For one reason only: to fund Mr. Bush's tax cuts for the rich. This administration is already raiding Social Security and will soon bankrupt Medicaid. In a short time there will no longer be any money left for any of the social programs that shield the poor and the less affluent from utter desperation -- and our children and grandchildren will be saddled with gargantuan long-term debt. Bush's slogan during his election campaign was: "Leave no child behind." Given his new budget, it is now clearly: "Leave no millionaire behind." This is class warfare, all right, on behalf of the Empire Class.
I do not normally look to The New York Times for prophecy. But in a lead editorial it said recently: "The Bush budget is a road map toward a different kind of American society, in which government no longer taxes the rich to aid the poor. . . . The budget discontinues the tradition of making 10-year projections into the future, possibly because it does not want the American people to see where the road is heading." We are indeed heading toward a different kind of American society in which government no longer taxes the rich to aid the poor; that exchange is now in the course of a historic -- and revolutionary -- reversal, all but unnoticed by the media. And the gulf between rich and poor widens daily, as the rich become the immeasurably rich while the poor become the unthinkable poor. A few corporate thieves -- we all know their names -- not long ago robbed ordinary investors of 200 billion dollars -- four times the property losses of 9/11. It is a near-certainty that nearly all of them will go scot-free. But it is also an absolute certainty that many poor people will continue to languish in prison -- and not a few will be put to death -- for the simple reason that they cannot afford decent legal counsel. There are no millionaires along death row, nor will there ever be.
As readers of the New Testament know, Caesar Augustus was a great proponent of the death penalty. By taxing the poor and middle classes, he created a Roman Empire increasingly full of resentment and hopelessness, where the distinctions between rich and poor became as extreme as the distinctions between life and death. In How the Irish Saved Civilization, I show that it was unequal taxation that became in the end the main reason for Rome's downfall. The lessons of history are manifold and sometimes contradictory. But few statements about history are more generally true than Santayana's tremendous insight: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (It is an insight that at least every Jewish listener in this gathering knows in his or her bones.) It has just come to light that Donald Rumsfeld's first major initiative, on taking over the Pentagon, was to commission a study of how the empires of the ancient world maintained their hegemony. He might more profitably have commissioned a study of how those empires, each in its turn, lost their power -- through hubris, blindness, and rampant injustice -- and disintegrated into nothingness. In the end, as Paul warned the Galatians long ago, "God is not mocked" -- nor is God's Justice. "For you reap what you sow."
As we live through our present and look forward to the future, we must also stay in touch with our shared past. An examination of this past can give contemporary Jews and Christians a better appreciation of who they are, of the immense journey we have taken down the roads of history. "I am a part of all that I have met," was the great line Tennyson gave Ulysses. We, too, should be part of all that we have met along the roads and rivers of our history. And whether Jew or Christian, believer or atheist, we are all of us the inheritors of the sublime moral tradition of Jewish prayer and prophecy. We have together a common purpose and, in some inescapable sense, a common destiny. And while no one of us can do everything, everyone must do something. What is essential is that each of us take a step forward to join the ranks of those who hope, that we hold out our hand -- to someone. There is no other way to walk with God.
Amos accused the people of Samaria in words that seared and phrases that smote. They "cram their palaces," he said, "with violence and extortion." They had "sold the upright for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals [from Gucci, no doubt]." But he also said that all this could be reversed in a moment, if only the people of Samaria would turn away from their own self-absorption and toward those who, however silently, cry out for help. "Then," promised Amos, "Ve-yigal ka-maim mishpat, ve-tsedaka k'nachal eytahn." "Then shall your justice flow like water and your compassion like a never-failing stream." Compassion, in this context, is not a convenient political slogan but an abiding moral obligation, a never-failing stream.
The worst feature of contemporary society is its tendency to leave each of us locked up in himself or herself, connection-less. To lessen this isolation we have developed all kinds of therapies, spiritual, psychological, and physical -- from groups that meet and talk endlessly to day spas, week spas, month spas, life spas. But none of these things, from Botox to herbal wrap, seems to be doing the trick, anymore than the huge houses and wine parties of the Samaritans did the trick for them. What we need to do is open our heart to the plight of others, as if our heart were a dam, so that indeed our justice may flow like water and our compassion like a never-failing stream.
Click here to read Thomas Cahill's previous essay, "How to Read the Bible."
Click here to read Thomas Cahill's previous essay, "Close Encounters with the People of the Past."